As her career draws to a close, the soccer icon leaves memories of magnificence on the field and meaningful change off of it
The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off this week in Australia and New Zealand. Much as it has been for the last few World Cups, the United States is favored to win. The USWNT are winners of the last two cups and has won half of the tournaments that have been played since its inception in 1991. The earlier championships in 1991 and 1999 were defined by legends like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and the emergence of the women's game globally. This generation has been defined by even more success, the proliferation of the women’s leagues, and the ever important issue of equal pay for women's players.
The player at the center of all this success and reform has been winger Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe has announced that she will retire at the end of this National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season, meaning that this will be her final World Cup appearance. As we look back at Rapinoe’s career, we see an accomplished athlete that has won at every level. But beyond that, we see an ambassador for women’s sports, a role model for young women, and a tremendous representation of the LGBTQIA+ community. Rapinoe’s impact is the definition of being more than an athlete.
A Winner and an Icon
Rapinoe’s career arc as a professional coincides with the growth of the women’s professional game at the club level in the United States. She started in 2009 with Women’s Professional Soccer to play for the Chicago Red Stars, who ceased operations a year later, and then she joined the expansion Philadelphia Independence in 2010. The late 2000s were a bit of a crapshoot with league stability and Rapinoe experienced this firsthand.
The WPS suspended operations in 2012, which left many players without a place to go and Rapinoe went on to play in Australia for Sydney FC and in France for juggernaut Olympique Lyonnais. In 2013, she found a home with the Seattle Reign of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). The NWSL is the highest level of soccer in the United States and has finally brought some stability to the league game in America, allowing for players like Rapinoe to ply their craft locally as opposed to trying to find interested clubs abroad.
Rapinoe has had a successful career in the NWSL, leading Seattle Reign to three first place finishes in league play. While never being able to win a championship in the playoffs, Rapinoe has been a force at the club level and was a driving force toward the success of the NWSL, which has continued to grow in popularity. This newfound interest in the women’s club game has resulted in a new TV deal from CBS, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the inclusion of players from the USWNT like Rapinoe.
It is Rapinoe’s national team accolades that most will remember her for. She is a 2-time World Cup champion and is attempting to secure her third currently. Along with the likes of Alex Morgan and previously Abby Wambach, Rapinoe has been the face of US soccer for years now. She has shown off a dazzling ability that is often characterized as unpredictable and mesmerizing. Perhaps her most memorable moment was in the 2011 World Cup as she sent in a perfect long cross to Abby Wambach to secure a victory against Brazil. The goal was so mesmerizing that it was named the winner of the greatest World Cup goal by FIFA. Another iconic moment came in 2019 when in the quarterfinal against France, Rapinoe scored two goals and perhaps had the most iconic celebration pose we have seen in many years.
Rapinoe’s national team career has been nothing short of storied and her accolades in the game speak for themselves:
2-time World Cup Champion
2019 FIFA Best Women’s Player
2019 Ballon d’Or Feminin
2019 World Cup Golden Ball
2-time World Cup All-Star
A Force of Change
Despite all of her on the field success, Rapinoe may best be remembered for her work off the pitch. Rapinoe has stated in interviews that she knew she was a lesbian her first year in college and publicly came out in July 2012, stating that she had been in a long-term relationship since 2009. Currently, she is engaged to former WNBA star Sue Bird and they were the first same-sex couple to be on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue. It cannot be overstated that Rapinoe and Bird’s relationship has formed a huge impact on the LGBTQIA+ community, to see two women at the top of their profession finding love and that love being celebrated. She has also been a very vocal ally for advocacy groups looking to end homophobia and transphobia worldwide.
Rapinoe has also been a pivotal figure in social justice causes that have been taken up by athletes. Most notably, Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 as a show of solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. When asked about the gesture, Rapinoe said:
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.”
But perhaps her most impactful moment happened in 2019, when she and 27 national team teammates filed a lawsuit for equal pay for women players versus their male counterparts. The argument was a simple one, that women should be compensated equally to their male counterparts, a practice that was not standard for many soccer federations. The lawsuit was eventually settled for $24M but the ripple effects are still being felt with more and more soccer federations (such as Brazil, Australia, and Norway) giving their women's teams the same pay as their men’s teams.
There are athletes that we watch and cover that are simply great on the field. Then there are other athletes that are impactful off the field. Megan Rapinoe is a player that did both with tremendous success. She was the face of US soccer for a decade, an icon in the world of fashion and sexual identity inclusivity, and a trailblazer in the fight to shatter the glass ceiling in athletics. Athletes like Rapinoe only come around once in a generation, and when they do their impact is felt for years after they are done playing. As a spectator, it has been a pleasure to watch her showcase her talent on the field and an equal pleasure seeing her advocate for issues that matter off of it.